Here’s where Israel will land on the moon today

"Beresheet" is first privately-funded space ship ever to make a lunar touchdown

  • Beresheet about to become 21st craft to make soft landing on moon
  • Israel joins China in restarting the 'race to the moon'
  • Interactive map shows timeline, origin and locations of all lunar landings

Update Thursday, April, 11 2019: Mission failed.

Israel has not joined the lunar club. Due to engine failure, Beresheet was unable to perform its scheduled landing. Mission control lost contact with the craft, which was destroyed in an uncontrolled, hard landing today 11 April 2019 at 3:23 pm (Eastern Time).

At a cost of $100 million, Beresheet — a collaboration between Israel Aerospace Industries and SpaceIL — was a space mission on a shoestring. Had it been successful, Beresheet could have inaugurated an era of low-cost lunar exploration.

Four countries on the moon

Image: Harry Stevens/Axios

The four lunar superpowers in one map: the Soviets (Luna 9), the Americans (Apollo 11), the Chinese (Chang'e 3) and the Israelis (Beresheet).

Beresheet is the first word in the Hebrew Bible, often translated as "In the beginning" (or "Genesis"). It's also the name of an unmanned Israeli spacecraft that is scheduled to land on the moon this Thursday at around 10 p.m. Israeli time — 3 p.m. ET.

Close to that time, check Contact GBS for updates and a live feed of the landing.

If and when Beresheet successfully touches down in the Sea of Serenity, Israel will be only the fourth country to land a craft on the moon. Only the United States, the Soviet Union and China have already done so.

The Israeli craft will break a few records of its own. Privately funded, Beresheet will be the first non-governmental space ship on the moon. With a height of just 5 feet (1.5 m) and weighing no more than 1,322 pounds (600 kg), it will also be the smallest lunar lander ever.

The craft is equipped with cameras to snap pictures of the lunar surface and equipment to measure the moon's magnetic fields. But the trip is also about national pride and remembrance: Beresheet carries an Israeli flag, a copy of the country's Declaration of Independence, and a recording of the national anthem — plus a bible and a digital time capsule containing, among many other things, the Jewish Traveler's Prayer and the testimonial of a Holocaust survivor.

America's most eccentric landing

Most U.S. landings stuck to the same neighbourhood. Geographically speaking, Surveyor 7 was America's most eccentric lunar landing. Image source: Harry Stevens / Axios

Beresheet will be landing in the middle of the Sea of Serenity, in a relatively crowded area (as lunar regions go): roughly halfway between the landing site of Apollo 15, which touched down in July 1971 and that of Luna 21, a Soviet mission that landed in January 1973.

Meanwhile, the Chinese rover that landed last January with the Chang'e 4 mission has the far side of the moon all to itself.

To date, there have been 20 successful soft landings on the moon, and this fantastic interactive map dates and places them all. Clicking on a dot on the timeline will spin the lunar globe to reveal the landing site. You can click your way through the various stations of lunar landing history.

As the timeline shows, the busiest decade in lunar history was bookended by Luna 8, which landed in February 1966, and Luna 24, touching down in August 1976. It feels like the Soviets wanted to have the last word in a dialogue dominated by the Americans, who landed 11 craft on the moon (including six manned ones) versus the USSR's seven.

After Luna 8: almost half a century of nothing, until December 2013, when China joined the lunar club with Chang'e 3.

The Chinese side of the moon

China has the far side of the moon all to itself. Image source: Harry Stevens / Axios

Surveyor 1, the second craft on the moon and the first American one (in June 1966), chose a landing site relatively close to Luna 9. The next one, again Soviet (Luna 13, December 1966) also landed nearby — as did the fourth craft, America's Surveyor 3 (April 1967).

The U.S. then outpaces the USSR: the next five craft are all American — three more Surveyors, then Apollo 11 and 12, manned missions staying remarkably close to ground previously reconnoitered by the unmanned landers.

In September 1970, the Soviets land Luna 16 not that far from the Apollo 11 landing site, as if attempting to intimidate the Americans. But their next mission, Luna 17 (November 1970), takes them far away from the U.S. landing sites. It's the Americans who give chase now: in July 1971, Apollo 14 lands on the shore of the Sea of Rains opposite the one where Luna 17 came down.

The Soviets mirrored the move in January 1973, when they set Luna 21 down on the edge of the Le Monnier Crater, not far from where the Americans had landed Apollo 17 just one month earlier. That was the last manned mission to the moon, as well as America's last lunar landing, effectively ending the off-world game of superpower chess, with lunar landers for pawns.

Remarkably, nearly all landings took place on the darker spots on the lunar surface, the so-called maria (singular: mare). These 'seas' are actually dark, basaltic plains formed by ancient volcanic eruptions that cover about 16% of the lunar surface, mostly on the near side of the moon.

The Chinese landing in January was the first one on the far side of the moon — 'dark side of the moon' is a misnomer, as it gets just as much sunlight as the side locked into our field of vision.

As the rise of commercial spaceflight further reduces launch costs, other countries or companies may now feel it is within their grasp to join the lunar club. True to its name, Beresheet could be at the beginning of a new rush to the moon.

UPDATE – mission failed

Israel has not joined the lunar club. Due to engine failure, Beresheet was unable to perform its scheduled landing. Mission control lost contact with the craft, which was destroyed in an uncontrolled, hard landing today 11 April 2019 at 3:23 pm (Eastern Time).

At a cost of $100 million, Beresheet – a collaboration between Israel Aerospace Industries and SpaceIL - was a space mission on a shoestring. Had it been successful, Beresheet could have inaugurated an era of low-cost lunar exploration.

To spin the moon and explore the history of lunar landings, click here at Axios.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.